I’ve gotten a gift this week. Twice I’ve woken up to snow. As I stepped into my cold office, lit the candles and looked out at the darkened landscape, I could just make out the small flakes drifting down in the early dawn light, muted gray by the clouds but allowing me to see the trees and houses around me. Everything was quite and still, covered in a healing blanket of white. All except the candles flickering in the window, twin flames dancing brightly in a sea of stillness.
I love snowstorms. I’m not crazy about chilling cold, ice or having to scrape and shovel. But I love snowstorms. All I want to do is grab a mug of tea or cocoa, sit curled up by the fire in my favorite crocheted blanket and sweats, and get down to writing my newest book or blog. I love just musing and researching. All while listening to the fire crack and pop, the heat washing over me (my boyfriend swears I’m half-cat because I can never get warm enough. I’ve been known to curl up and fall asleep on the office floor in a pool of sunshine because it was warm and I was freezing).
Nothing makes me happier than weather. I’m crazy for rain, from soaking rains to fierce thunderstorms. One of the reasons I moved to Colorado was the fact there’s so much sun here (sometimes too much, but hey can’t be picky now). Snowstorms are my favorite cozy mood. Even wildfires, as scary as they are, fill me with a sense of rebirth and knowledge of the cycle of life.
As I was sitting here musing and brain-storming for this blog article, I thought about how excited I am for the snow. Not just because of fire and cocoa and the general peaceful calm it brings to me, but because I GET TO SIT IN FRONT OF THE FIRE AND WRITE. There is nothing else calling to my attention. No place to go. Not a lot to do other than house chores. Perfect excuse to sit and get all that writing done that I’ve been putting off because of adulting priorities.
This notion started me thinking about weather in general. How it affects me. How it affects my writing. And I started to realize that weather is so much more impactful in our lives as writer’s than whether we get moisture or not. Not only do weather moods inspire us to write or not, it inspires us on what to write. By observing the weather, not only can we describe it more intimately and bring our reader’s further into our stories but we can also use the weather to set moods in our books. Imagine starting a book with “The thunder crashed overhead.” Instant mood set. No need for telling how the characters feel. The reader knows how they feel in a thunderstorm and attributes those feelings to the characters.
Take some time and do an exercise I did. Take a few pages of paper and at the top of each one write a type of weather: snow, sun, rain, wildfires, whatever you chose. Then spend a few minutes on each page and just think about what a snowstorm is to you. How do you feel. What do you want in that moment. What does it look like, feel like, smell like. What do you think of when you think of that type of weather. There are no wrong answers. Write down everything you think of, even if it doesn’t really make sense. You might be surprised with what you come up with. Here are some of the things I came up with.
So, because it happens to be snowing outside of my window right now, I started my list with snowstorms.
Words that I came up with: silent, still, serene, peace, calm, birds fluttering around, squirrels rocking limbs creating mini snow-falls, cozy, light shimmering through icicles, classical music, cocoa, fires, dark music, dark, grey, somber, oppressive, fierce, fluffy, light, soft, harsh, blankets, gloves, sweaters, sweats
Now you may be wondering, wait up! I have a lot of words in there that don’t make sense. Serene and oppressive? Fierce and fluffy? Aren’t those two different feelings?
Yes, they are. Because as I thought about snowstorms, all the snowstorms I’ve experienced in my life, I started to realize that there are so many different faces that snowstorms give us. There is the blinding, driving snow of the blizzard. The light, fluffy snow that peacefully falls. The bitter blinding cold and fear as you fight it trying to get somewhere. The safe, serene feeling as you watch it through a window. The snow mixed with ice that blanket a city, lights flickering and threatening to go out. The light snow that just frosts everything, turning it into a Christmas card. And so much more.
I’ve walked through blinding snows to get to the bus when I was going to school. I’ve been stranded in bus stations, knowing I was less than a half an hour from the safety of my home but unable to get there, fear and anxiety coursing through my body. When I was a kid, we lost power to our home for a week, huddling in the living room surrounded by kerosene lights and heaters, heating up pots of water on the gas stove. I also remember the giant snowpiles my dad would make, and the bucking bronco rides down the hill my brother and I would dare each other to do. Now as an adult, looking wearily at the snow because its going to be a pain to shovel but still delighting in being a kid for a second and pelting your partner with a snowball or giving yourself permission to be silly for a bit and making a snow angel.
Snow can make us silly. Snow can make us calm. Snow can make us feel loved, and cozy inside. It can make us feel cold, afraid and alone. It can make us feel a rainbow of emotions. Pretty incredible for a small piece of frozen water.
I have loved rain since I was a kid growing up in Iowa learning about thunderstorms and tornadoes. As much as tornadoes scared me to death, I also found them fascinating. I still remember seeing Twister in the theaters as a kid, for a summer wanting nothing more than to be a storm chaser and understanding more about these magical monsters.
I reveled when it was a long, soaking rain with no wind so I could open up the windows and just sit all day listening to the rain tapping on the leaves, the ground, the roof of the house. Smell the freshness of the rain. The slight cooling breeze that would waft through. Maybe a slow, rolling peal of thunder like a bass drum in the sky.
Then there were the fierce storms. During the day, I marveled in their power. The trees whipping back and forth. The dance of black, grey, blue and green swirling clouds that heralded bad tidings like hail or tornadoes. The snaking lighting that flashed across the sky, or streaked to the ground in a blinding flash of light, followed by a thunder crack sharper than any whip recoil. At night, feeling the house move and sway in the wind. Hearing the howling scream. Waiting with nervous tension for the whistling that would announce an unseen monster in the night, a tornado shrouded in rain and darkness hurtling down on our house. Thankfully, one never came for us. But a few got close.
So it was this mix of words that came up when I thought about rainstorms: violent, crashing, rumbling roars, fresh, vibrant, new, life, clean, staccatto, fear, happiness, relief, strength, power, wonder, amazement, seconds, shifting, changing, lazy.
All that for rain?
I know it may feel weird to think of sunlight as weather, since it’s the neutral palette that we base all of our other weather descriptions on. Partly sunny or partly cloudy means our pretty light show will be interrupted at times, shaded. Storms are an aberration, blocking our access to light. Since a sunny day is the basis against which we pit all other weather, it may seem odd to ask how you feel about it. But I think it is important to understand that not all sunlight is the same.
Some of the words I thought up were: happy, light, life, joy, heat, hot, pain, raw, overblown, highlights, color, majesty, fireball.
When I moved to Colorado, I was so happy to see so much sunlight during winter. In Iowa, as great as some other seasons are, winter was always three months of cold, disgusting ick. Oh, it was great during or right after a snowstorm. But the sun never shone. It was just weeks of wind, gray, ice and snow. Oh, the sun might shine for a day or two. But it was always just to melt the snow and turn that all into a disgusting mash of brown and gray covering the entire land. Needless to say, yes Seasonal Affective Disorder is a thing and I had it.
However, Colorado has its own issues with the sun. It is so bright here, they have to shut down the interstate going into the mountains because it’s too much of a hazard. There have been many times where I’m blinking and squinting trying to drive, cursing the fact I left my sunglasses at home, only to realize sheepishly that I am in fact wearing them. Or the fact that I sunburn here so fast, or that it’s so dry that I get dehydrated just walking out the door. Our grass withers and dies in a day. Wood dries out and cracks. Plants curl up in a day, browning and dead if you forgot to water them. Or when there’s a wildfire, and all you see is a burning red ball through the haze.
See, even sunlight has a dark side.
I almost hesitated to put this one in there, because I know that it’s a huge issue in the West and has caused a lot of heartache. I’ve been fortunate that we’ve not been threated with it, yet. But last year, the Marshall fires in Boulder and Superior were about ten miles from us. Had the wind not died down, I could be singing a very different story today.
Wildfires bring such conflicting thoughts. They are a gift of rebirth to the forest, breaking down old debris and clearing out space for new growth. In fact in certain places, some plants can only grow with fires, needing the heat to break the seedpods and allowing the plant to sprout. But wildfires are also fierce. They are fear. They are death.
Two years ago, we were driving south from Wyoming through Fort Collins and the big fire they had. In Wyoming, it was sunny and 90 degrees. As we approached Fort Collins, we could see what looked like a thunderstorm on the horizon, only it stretched in a huge band west to east. As we fell under the cloud (the smoke trail from the fires) the temperature dropped forty degrees. On the horizon, light glowed with an eerie orange tint. In the cloud, all was darkness. All you could see were the ash flakes drifting like snow to cover the hood and windshield through the car’s headlights. Everything was quiet. The normally rowdy traffic was slowed to a stop, crawling along in the stillness. Everyone wanting to hurry out, but the chaos was stilled by the somberness and fear of the moment. I remember going “this must be what an apocalypse feels like”.
Sitting at home, looking at the mountains wreathed in that same smoke now thinned by distance and wind, and watching an orb red fireball of a sun push through the haze sitting above the peaks, I thought “beautiful. Deadly, but beautiful.”
Watching the Marshall fires on TV, seeing the destruction, the loss of lives, stepping outside with the ash falling on my face, all I felt was fear. Fear and insecurity. Because we don’t live in the mountains, we live in the flatlands. Wildfires are a mountain thing, right? Wrong.
OBSERVE THE WEATHER AROUND YOU
When we talk about weather, we tend to use small words. Rain. Snow. Sun. Storm. But as I hope I’ve shown, these events are more than just a single word. They are complicated, diverse, oppositional creatures who can inflict joy or pain, love or hate, fear or happiness depending on their whims. And I believe it is time we did them justice by observing their temperaments, their abilities, their stories and understanding them deeper.
This observing not only connects us more to the earth (something I am a big advocate of), not only does it give us better awareness of how to dress for the day or how to protect ourselves (like learning the signs of a tornado when you live way too far from the city sirens for warnings to work), observing the weather allows us as writers to better incorporate these creatures and all their moods into our work.
Take the following.
“It was raining.” Okay, not bad. We know what rain is, we can reasonably create the scene in our minds.
But what about this? “The sky was filled with leaden gray clouds, their bottoms pulled to the earth by gravity. They had been weeping all day, a steady staccato beating on the roof, punctuated by pings of ice as the temperature dropped with night’s approach. The tree branches all slumped to the ground, their leaves waterlogged. Rivers ran through the streets, bearing along detritus to get stuck in the drains. Off in the distance, on the edge of her hearing, a low rumbling echoed through the sky, some god playing the blues on his bass drum.”
I don’t know about you, but I like the second description better. It perfectly creates not only the mood of the scene, but the mood of the character. Even though I only said one small snippet about the character “on the edge of her hearing,” you still can get a feel for where her mind is at.
Look at the list of words that you created. How descriptive are they? By reading the words, can you put yourself in that moment of the storm? Can you feel that moment of the day? If not, maybe you need to take some time to really sit and experience the weather around you.
Observation is what makes writers of any genre better at describing the worlds of their characters. Even non-fiction. Imagine having to describe conditions of people working the fields for their lords. They lived within the weather, relying on it and affected by it much more than many of us are now. Spring rains, scorching sun, floods, droughts, windstorms, snowstorms. Imagine trying to describe all of it to your reader, wanting to place them there, but only being able to say “there was rain.”
What started off as a simple enjoyment of a snowstorm and a candle has opened up a whole new viewpoint to me. That as writers, it is not our jobs to just tell stories. It is our jobs to observe the world. The people. The feelings. The events. The complicated connections. To be better world builders, we need to know the world. The depths and layers of it. The implications. The wild creatures, both physical and ethereal, that inhabit it. To better describe it, we have to immerse ourselves within its nature. The beauty and the darkness.
I will never look at a simple snowstorm in the same way again.